Nepali Times
Should some peaks remain virgin?

As cash-strapped countries like ours think of opening up new peaks to boost the country's tourism-dependent economy, it isn't only the local populace that gets caught up in the debate. The question refers to increasing environmental and cultural degradation, and disregard for peoples' religious sentiments concerning Machapuchre here and Kailash in Tibet.

A recent BBC World Today debate on whether the sanctity of Machapuchre should be defiled by opening it to climbers resulted in a flurry of emails from around the world. Most respondents felt that a country's culture and tradition shouldn't be sacrificed at the altar of commerce. Others, citing Everest as a case in point, were concerned about environmental degradation and commercialisation. "The question of sanctity does not arise as Dr Harka Gurung has proved the mountain is not holy," said Kanak Mani Dixit during the debate. "The dramatic visual attraction of Machapuchre as seen from Pokhara Valley and the surroundings will not be undermined by allowing climbers to attempt to scale it." Others felt the relatively few extra climbers who would be attracted to the region would not justify a decision to open the mountain either financially or environmentally.

Dr Harka Gurung, an eminent geographer who has travelled extensively in the area, points out that while Machapuchre is a beautiful mountain, it is not sacred to local Gurungs who live around its base. Dr Gurung says it is necessary to open up mountains, including Machapuchre, to climbers to boost the local economy, but stresses that there should be adequate management and that revenue generated should go back to the area.

This isn't the first time Nepal's most distinctive mountain has been the focus of such attention. In the mid 80s, UNICEF had expressed an interest to organise an international expedition to the summit to raise funds for its children's programmes. The idea was abandoned after it met with strong objections. "There was never any protest from the locals in the immediate vicinity of the mountain. They didn't say it was sacred. The protests came from Kathmandu," says Elizabeth Hawley, the Reuters mountaineering correspondent in Nepal.

And now there's another controversy brewing that will call forth even more passionate responses. The Chinese government recently decided to allow a group of Spanish climbers led by Jesus Martinez Novas to climb Mt Kailash in Tibet. Unlike Machapuchre, Kailash, standing in a remote corner of Tibet, is most definitely held sacred and venerated by more than a billion Buddhists and Hindus in Asia. Hindus believe the snow-capped pyramid of Kailash is the abode of Shiva and an earthly representation of Mt Sumeru, the cosmic mountain at the centre of the universe. Buddhists lore has the Tibetan (or, as is claimed, Nepali) poet and mystic Milarepa being carried to the top of the mountain on the rays of the morning sun in the 11th century. Coming less than a month after the Taliban ordered the destruction of the 2000-year old Bamiyan Buddha statues, the Chinese decision is seen by some as political propaganda to demoralise Tibetan nationalism and independence.

This is not the first time climbers have been permitted to attempt Kailash. In the mid 80s, Chinese authorities told Reinhold Messner he could climb Kailash. The Italian climber declined and said in an interview with the British Observer: "If we conquer this mountain, then we conquer something in other people's souls. I would suggest they go and climb something a little harder. Kailash is not so high and not so hard."

"It's not a very difficult mountain," agrees Doug Scott, president of the British Alpine club. "We've urged the Spanish to be cautious. To even think about climbing Kailash diminishes what others hold sacred. I think they have withdrawn their plan, since we haven't heard from them."

In 1979 Scott, Joe Tasker and Peter Boardman stopped a few yards short of the summit of Kangchendzonga in deference to the people of Sikkim who believe their gods reside there. A British and Indian team who made the first and second ascent of the mountain, before them, did the same.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)